The art of facilitating (virtual) workshops
by Sabrina Tarquini [17 min read]
Needless to say, we have all found ourselves in a boring meeting. Let’s think about the last few months that most of us spent at home working in front of a screen. There must have been a meeting where you just longed to be out. Maybe you looked at the time on your laptop, checked notifications on your phone, scribbled to find a pleasant distraction, or maybe you thought: “That’s OK, I’ll just listen in and speak when I have to”, then ended up doing something else in another window.
That’s OK, we are humans, it’s fine if we are not concentrated 100% of the time, but maybe it’s not totally about us. Perhaps the moderators could have done something more to spice up the session. And if they did, the meeting would have definitely been more productive.
Indeed, it must be about facilitation. An art which—in the context of virtual meetings—becomes more crucial than ever.
…enables a group of people to achieve a shared goal. Why? To get the best results out of the people in your meeting no matter if these people are your colleagues, your project team, external stakeholders, or potential users of your product. You want to get work done, and you want it done in the most fruitful and pleasant way, for everyone. So, prepare yourself to be a neutral party, wearing multiple hats at the same time. In fact, as a facilitator you will be:
So, prepare yourself to be a neutral party, wearing multiple hats at the same time. In fact, as a facilitator you will be:
- A coach. Exactly like a coach in a football club, a good facilitator encourages and guides the team to get the best out of themselves and win the match. If you want to be a good facilitator, you should see yourself as a peer and support your team members, embracing the idea of steering their performance without being in control of it.
- A director. Think about the role of an orchestra director. When setting up a concert, you may want to select the appropriate scores for your setlist and distribute parts amongst the musicians. When leading the orchestra, you will need manage the interactions between the musicians, create a synergy between them to make sure the overall performance is excellent. Similarly, the facilitator takes care of the session in all its aspects, from designing the meeting activities to monitoring the group dynamics, including—of course—the capability of improvising when something unpredictable breaks the flow.
- A teacher. Facilitators empower people to learn. This means they support the process of translating abstract concepts and ideas into concrete outcomes so that a shared understanding is built, and all participants can learn from each other’s knowledge. As people have different learning styles, a facilitator will take them into account when proposing suitable activities.
You may argue that facilitation is about soft skills. Of course, experience has a stake when communicating with people and getting them engaged. Still, there are other factors that contribute to good facilitation, and you don’t need to wait to apply them. Not just during a session, as facilitation extends to the preparation and processing of the meeting itself.
Preparing the session
There you are, having to organise a “meeting” about the upcoming activities in the roadmap. Just try to switch your way of thinking for a moment. A “meeting” could also be a “workshop”, a “collaborative” or, why not, “creative session”. Using a different language will help you get out of your habits. Then get started with the preparations:
- Define the objective(s). Why are you organising this session? What’s the result you expect to have by the end of the session? As a workshop may be a step in a longer-term project, you could define both ‘hard’ objectives (concrete results) and ‘soft’ objectives (e.g., building consensus).
- Select the participants. Who are the key people who need to be in the session? Try to evaluate their profile and possible contribution, in relationship with the goal you need to achieve. To this aim, better if you can involve open-minded profiles. To select participants, ask yourself questions like: who are good contributors? Do we need decision makers? Are we taking into account all the people who have a say in this topic? If you plan to organize group activities, think about a balanced composition of the groups in terms of roles, backgrounds, and personality.
Of course, send the invitations in advance, as agendas fill up pretty quickly.
- Gather your facilitation team. With whom are you going to facilitate the session? Especially when moderating sessions with large groups of people, you need to include multiple facilitators in your team. This way you can easily split tasks like leading the conversation, visual/written recording, timekeeping, taking care of logistics (conference calls, break-out rooms) and following up different groups. Make responsibilities clear from the start.
- Set up an agenda. You have an objective and you know who will be contributing to achieve it. A workshop schedule will guide you through the session. Try to be specific with the timing, and make sure the agenda is remote-friendly. Possibly include in your structure:
- An opening moment, with introductions and, if needed, an icebreaker
- Core activities, as varied as possible to keep the energy level high
- Enough breaks between the activities, to let people step out from their desk. Online workshops often require more breaks than in a physical context.
- A closing moment, with wrap-up and next steps
- Select appropriate activities. What activities can help you achieve the session’s goal with the timing and people you have? Of course, the success of the activities in the session will depend on the participants that you have. As people have different learning profiles, some participants may feel more comfortable talking rather than writing while others may want to jump into sketching or drawing rather than listening to a presentation. In the same way, some people may feel uncomfortable with presenting in front of a large group and may perform well in a small group, while some others would love to bring their perspective to a plenary discussion. Virtual meetings accentuate these tendencies, so best if you know in advance.
Try to select a good mix of activities to keep a safe balance. Design thinking offers a variety of methods and canvases from which you can borrow. With a good online conferencing software and a virtual whiteboard, you have enough to perform basic activities such as presenting, generating and mapping ideas, reviewing content, and voting. You can think about combining offline and online activities by—for instance—uploading photos or sketches on the virtual board. If you want to go wild, you can even explore tools for polling, gaming, or online sketching. In any case, always try to alternate individual, group and plenary moments, taking into account how digitally-savvy your participants are.
- Take care of logistics. In real-life workshops, you would carefully study the room layout and the equipment needed for your activities. For instance, you would try to avoid U-shaped or boardroom configurations, in favour of team tables. You would equip the room with posters, markers, sticky notes, and everything you need to set up a creative workspace.
In online workshops, you similarly select the “room” you are going to use during the session. For a good interactive session, use a videoconferencing software allowing break-out rooms (Zoom, Teams), as well as a virtual whiteboard (Miro, Mural). Do not forget that not all participants may be familiar with the tools that you select, so it best to notify them in advance to give them the possibility to try them out. Last but not least, make sure that your participants check their hardware and settings before the session. Digital whiteboards do not get on well with small screens, while screen sharing may not always work out due to browser settings.
Are you confident about your preparation? If you are working for a client, do not hesitate to share and review your agenda with them, it will be much appreciated. They may know the participants better than you do, so do not hesitate to gather their feedback to improve your workshop preparation.
Conducting the session
Everything ready? The workshop is about to start, you grab a coffee and sit in front of your screen. Take a deep breath and leave any pointless concerns aside. You turn your camera on, check if the background is alright, and open the call.
So what are the skills that you need to conduct the session with your co-facilitators?
- Positive attitude. First of all, it’s essential that you are confident about yourself. As you need to be a guide for the people in the workshop, maintain a positive tone of voice and body language, be energetic and communicate that you are calm and in control.
- Creating a safe space. Make participants feel at ease, as they shouldn’t be afraid to engage in the activities, intervene or voice out their concerns. To do so:
- Share a list of ground rules at the start of the session, such as suspending judgement, taking turns to speak, challenging ideas and not people, and raising hands to share any possible concern.
- Foresee an icebreaker activity to create an inclusive atmosphere that makes people bond.
- Ask participants to turn their cameras on. Talk to them using their name, this will help you create a more authentic, peer relationship with them.
- Instructing participants. Explain the activities in the clearest way possible. Include step-by-step instructions and time constraints and don’t forget to be explicit about the output that you expect at the end of the activity.
If you conduct an activity with small groups in break-out rooms, distribute the facilitators in the rooms so that participants can still ask clarifications if something is unclear.
Also, don’t forget to keep the instructions displayed. In real life you would do it on your slide deck or a flipchart, while in a virtual meeting you can keep sharing them in your presentation, adding them to the virtual whiteboard too.
- Active listening. Listen carefully when people share their perspectives. If you listen actively, you want to pay attention to the overall message that is being communicated, putting your biases aside. To make sure people feel listened to and that their message is received by everyone, try to summarise it concisely and refer back to if needed.
- Active communicating. Verbal skills are a key to a successful workshop, so be proactive in your communication. Find your balance between informal and formal communication, as you will need to be friendly and professional at the same time.
Remember, a good facilitator is able to summarise and paraphrase objectively, ask appropriate questions, connect ideas and nudge the group to look at a problem from a different perspective.
After all, verbal skills are not enough if not paired with sense-making. Mere parroting would definitely be pointless, as you need to grasp key messages: “So Laura, by highlighting all these issues, you are implying it will be unlikely to release this feature before Q3, is that correct?”.
Also, do not forget a facilitator is like a coach in a football team: give participants positive feedback to encourage their contribution! “I invite everyone to look at Myles’ scenario, it is definitely the most complete in the whole group, well done!”.
Last but not least, non-violent communication—the well-known methodology conceived by Marshall Rosenberg—plays a crucial role in verbal skills, especially in challenging situations.
- Visual recording. We’ve just mentioned active listening and summarising. The participants talk and as a facilitator you summarise their speech. Of course, you can capture their message in a verbal, written or, of course, sketched form. Sketchnotes are a powerful tool to visualise ideas. You may have seen people doing graphic recordings during conferences or Ted Talks and you might have noticed that it’s pretty useful to go back to these “infographics” to check the key message of a talk. Visual recording skills are pretty handy when facilitating workshops: sketches fix ideas on a surface with little room for doubts or ambiguity, they raise questions and trigger new discussions by making links between different concepts explicit. So, if you have a drawing board connected to your laptop, don’t hesitate to use it. Alternatively, you could sketch on paper and capture your notes with an external camera.
- Managing group energy and dynamics. It may sound harder to do virtually but you still need to pay attention to the interactions between participants. First, be inclusive. Different personalities may clash as some personalities may be too dominant at the expense of more introverted characters. Try to empathise with all participants and sense the group dynamics to steer behaviour when needed. Everyone should feel involved and participate, so don’t hesitate to address both shy and talkativ participants: “Steve, thanks for your opinion, may I ask Lizzy to share her perspective? I haven’t heard from her yet”.
Second, monitor the relevance of the activities that you’ve proposed. If you feel that the energy is going down because the activities do not seem be engaging, just ask the participants: “Mark, it seems to me you are not adding any ideas to the board. May I ask you why? Is there an issue we need to talk about?”. Of course, communicate with your co-facilitators to adjust the course of the session. As we said, improvising is also a key skill in facilitation.
I guess you know now what your skills are as a facilitator. Let’s go back to your session. You’ve just finished an ideation exercise for a roadmap. The groups are presenting their ideas one by one. While you moderate the session, your co-facilitator John is keeping an eye on the timing, while Mary is sketching the key concepts emerging from the presentations. Everything goes smoothly, until Sam, a participant, starts criticising the outcome of the activity, with the risk of undermining the entire session.
As a facilitator, you often need to deal with disruptive personalities, as well as challenging groups. Be ready to face this type of situation and handle possible conflicts. There is no one recipe to tackle them, as the solution may very well depend on the specific personalities.
Still, the capability to recognise certain challenging “profiles” can be helpful, to better understand how to move forward. For instance, a “complainer” would judge and criticise other people’s work. A “boss” would dominate the discussion, pushing personal ideas. A “rusher” would push the group to take decisions quickly, differently from the “frog”, who would discreetly withdraw and not contribute at all to the session.
Very often, challenges may not be only at an individual level. As a matter of fact, they can extend to a whole group. For instance, you may encounter unresponsive groups, low participation, side conversations, skeptical groups, missing knowledge. In extreme cases, you may detect power structures altering the natural groups dynamics and hindering collaboration, or you could even end up in a crisis situation, where unspoken tensions burst during the meeting.
How to deal with such circumstances? Here a few general tips:
- Embrace conflict. Disruptive personalities are often symptoms of underlying tensions. Focus on the “whys”, approach the participant and build a dialogue to make these frustrations explicit. Try to base yourself on objective observations, as non-violent communication suggests. Underlying tensions may turn into insights that could even enrich your session.
- Create space. Encourage people to express their viewpoint, listen to their struggles and concerns. Consider the possibility of readapting the workshop activities in case they do not meet their expectations or learning styles.
- Work in small, mixed groups. Try to organise break-out sessions with mixed participants. Variety is always beneficial, so try to mix different knowledge backgrounds and personalities.
- Delegate tasks. Sometimes it’s useful to make people feel valued by assigning them responsibilities. Why not turn some participants into co-facilitators? “I need your precious help to note down the insights on the whiteboard. Christine, would you like to do it?”.
Also, avoid doing the activities yourself, as people may tend to get used to it and lose engagement. Do not hesitate to ask: “Who is going to write down the ideas? Who is going to present?” and, if you get no reply, appoint roles yourself.
- Be flexible. Do not insist on certain activities if you don’t see results coming up. Maybe the exercises are not suitable for the group, the participants are too tired, or perhaps you don’t have the right people to provide the contributions you expected. Sense the atmosphere in the group, gently “negotiate” how to move on with the participants, be ready to adapt your schedule or, in extreme cases, suspend the session. In any case, remember your workshop objective and evaluate with your team of co-facilitators if you can reach it in the given circumstances.
- Take extreme personalities aside. If a participant is compromising the whole session and you see no way of dealing with him, reach out to him personally and, if he shows no intention to change his behaviour, ask him to leave.
Closing the session
The session is over, you thanked the participants for their contribution and informed them about the next workshop. Even Sam turned out to be a valuable source of insights. His criticism hid a lot of frustrations with the limited funding available for the year, which would then hinder his motivation to contribute. At least, you know you will need to include an activity to perform a feasibility evaluation of the roadmap in the next workshop.
Of course, do not expect to get a finished result at the end of the session. You will need to report the session and turn the input you gathered into a meaningful deliverable. Depending on the nature of the session, the outcome may very well vary. It could be a written report, a slide deck, a visualization, a prototype… In all cases, it is always a good practice to share such outcomes with all participants who attended the session.
Last but not least, gather feedback about your performance from the participants. In the same way, do not hesitate to organise a debriefing with your team, to exchange constructive feedback and understand how you could have performed better. Good feedback loops will help both you and your team to improve your facilitation skills in future workshops.
So, do you remember the boring meeting at the start of the article? Maybe next time, instead of checking the time on your laptop, you could actually timebox an activity. Instead of scribbling, you could create a useful sketchnote. Instead of just listening, you could record the key concepts of a discussion on a shared virtual whiteboard. Do not be afraid to be proactive as, after all, we can all be facilitators.